It's only fitting that the publisher of books about (and by) pop sensations like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus—not to mention the megapopular High School Musical franchise—has a musical connection of his own.
Well before publishing was on his radar, Jonathan Yaged, v-p and U.S. publisher at Disney Book Group, was the business manager for the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., where he helped bring some of the biggest bands of the early '90s—Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins and Ice-T, among them—to the storied nightclub. “We did Nirvana at the club after Nevermind came out,” Yaged recalls. “The biggest band in the country playing a 350-seat club. It was sick.”
Yaged, 39, began working at the club while attending George Washington University, staying on after graduation, before moving to New York City, where he attended Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law. After earning his J.D., Yaged worked for an entertainment firm that represented chefs like Jacques Pépin and Mollie Katzen, as well as the estates of authors including Tennessee Williams and Isaac Asimov. There, Yaged began to see ways that brands, personalities and intellectual properties could be expanded—a useful skill to bring to Disney when (after a stint at another firm) he joined the company in 2000 as director of business affairs.
He was initially responsible for finding new ways to use the content of Disney's Milan-based magazine group. “We were going to create new material, not just Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comic books, which had been the mainstay of the company,” Yaged says. “They brought me in to head up new book deals and to figure out ways to create situations where we could do more than just books,” such as television and film deals.
Yaged then worked at Miramax Books (before it was folded into Hyperion), which saw the launch of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series and Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy; he was later promoted to v-p of business development and strategic planning, and took on his current role in 2007.
According to its recently released 2008 financial report, Disney Book Group was up 26% over 2007 (which had been 15% over fiscal year 2006) under Yaged's tenure as publisher. It's easy to assume that growth is coming from hot commodities like High School Musical (worldwide sales for Disney's HSM books total just under 50 million copies) and other media tie-ins, but Yaged says that author-driven properties nurtured at Disney-Hyperion are just as responsible. “It's really across all the imprints,” he says, citing perennially strong performers like Colfer, Rick Riordan and Mo Willems.
With numerous entertainment options vying for kids' time and money (including the numerous films and television shows from Disney itself), Yaged believes that children's publishers have to constantly seek innovative ways to get the message out. “We have great stories [at Disney],” he says. “You just have to make sure that [kids] remember that they're there.” He points to the success of Colfer's national bus tour this past summer for Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox, which Disney built on by hosting a video blog that the author filmed on the road and by simulcasting one of his appearances to 40 bookstores.
And when it comes to those major properties, Yaged says Disney is fine-tuning its tie-in publishing programs to mesh with and expand on those brands. When Hannah Montana went into reruns at the end of a recent season, Disney Press was ready with new stories—not just episodes retold in print. “The kids gobbled them up,” he says. “It was the only new content they could get in the marketplace about Hannah Montana.”
Disney has also successfully used this formula with Pirates of the Caribbean as well as with High School Musical, Disney Fairies and Camp Rock. “We're going to do more of that as well,” Yaged says, “and create new opportunities for kids to enjoy a world and the characters they already know and love.”
To see a video of the interview with Jonathan Yaged, go to www.publishersweekly.com